In its heyday 60 years ago, there were 146 branches of United Cattle Products across Lancashire and the north of England. UCPs, as they were affectionately known, attached butchers’ shops to restaurants and specialised in the cheapest cuts, such as tripe and black pudding.
Their meat never entered our Jewish home but I still have a vivid memory of walking past a UCP in central Manchester with my grandfather, en route for a “coffee dash” at a Kardomah café. It was raining but there was a long queue of housewives outside, and the shop’s windows were bedecked with sheets of off-white tripe and dark coils of black pudding.
Today I order tripe whenever I see it on a menu, whether in Singapore (where it is spicy) or in a trattoria in northern Italy (where it is at its very best, in my opinion).
While the stomach lining of the cow is likely to remain a minority taste, black pudding is enjoying something of an international renaissance, an evolution that would, I imagine, surprise the Mancunian housewives who saw it as an essential ingredient in their husbands’ breakfasts.
Black pudding, boudin noir in France or morcilla in Spain are all variations on a cheap but venerable ingredient – the first reference to it in literature, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, is in Homer’s Odyssey. Blood sausage, its generic name, is dried pig’s blood in a casing, with the rather neutral flavours of the blood enhanced by pieces of fat, chopped onion and then regional variations: oatmeal in Britain; cream or milk in France; and even almonds, pimento peppers and parsley in southern Spain.
The coarser versions have a delicious, mouth-filling texture that can be adjoined to the most unlikely ingredients. Scallops work well, while beetroot and freshwater perch at Visaandeschelde in Amsterdam, as I described last week, is an original combination that I would try again. Sautéed apples and black pudding make a great first course or light lunch.
Another winning factor for black pudding, in a world of rapidly increasing food prices, is its relative cheapness. Debbie Pierce, who graduated from her Saturday job at Bury market in Lancashire to start the Bury Black Pudding Company in 2005, is convinced of this.
“Our initial production was five tonnes of black pudding a week but it’s now over 38 tonnes,” she explained. “And we deliver to most of the major supermarkets nationally. We’re having to raise our prices for the first time in two years but that’s primarily because of rising grain and petrol prices.”
What has changed most during this period, Pierce says, is the perception of black pudding. “Chefs have opened so many customers’ eyes to the fact that black pudding, with less than 5 per cent fat and a high iron content, is a wholesome food – and inexpensive too.”
The chef who has done more than anyone for the reputation of black pudding in the British Isles is Seumas MacInnes, the genial proprietor of Café Gandolfi in Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible. This book, MacInnes told me, interrupting himself to laugh, has stunned even the most ardent aficionados by selling more than 10,000 copies in its first year.
Born on Barra in the Hebrides where he watched his grandmother and mother make their own black puddings, MacInnes subsequently lost his heart to those made in Stornoway, Lewis, by the butchers Macleod & Macleod. MacInnes buys more than 25 1.5kg sticks of black pudding a week, and the butcher makes a black pudding and pork sausage especially for him.
“What’s so particular about this black pudding,” MacInnes explained, “is that [the butcher] gets the seasoning and the texture just right with just the appropriate amount of oatmeal. It’s this twist, adding a touch of sweetness to an ingredient that seemingly would only taste sour, that makes it such an excellent secondary ingredient.”
In the best experiments, the pudding can produce brilliant results. MacInnes serves black pudding with creamy celeriac gratin, with pissaladière with anchovies or as fritters with salt cod. But it was the arrival of courgette flowers from a grower in Arran that prompted him to add crumbled black pudding to ricotta, grated Parmesan, herbs and seasoning before stuffing the flowers and frying them in olive oil. He declares it a great success. I am equally certain that such a dish would never have graced the windows of a UCP.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
The Bury Black Pudding Company
64 Albion Street, Glasgow, www.cafegandolfi.com
The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible by Seumas MacInnes, £4.99, www.birlinn.co.uk